Mike Moxcey ©2005
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Wind : Flutes Horns Reeds   6-Hole and 7-Hole
wind instruments
Diatonic vs. Chromatic
Percussion : Drums Shakers
Strings : Bowed Plucked Fretted

Moxcey's Incompleat Guide to Musical Instruments

Musical instruments are usually split into 3 categories: Wind : Percussion : Strings
The Boy Scout manual adds two more: Keyboards : Electronic

These categories work reasonably well, but don't actually cover every instrument. Check out a jaw harp or musical saw. Some musicologists have come up with other classification schemes based on the two different variables required to make music:

I won't get into those categories but will cover these two aspects while talking about some of the instruments.

Wind Instruments

This category covers all the things that blow.
At least, it covers all the musical instruments that blow ;-)
This area is split into Brass and Woodwind in orchestras but that doesn't reflect the fact that some clarinets are made of brass.

I like the categorization of wind instruments into these three categories:


Flutes are holy. Every culture has revered flutes. Kokopelli, the oldest god in the world, is a flute player.

The reason they are holy is that what vibrates is air. It's invisible so you can't see what makes the sound.
A drum or log, you can hit it and see the sound. You can hear the farting sounds of a horn. But you can't see air vibrate. You can only hear an eerie sound. You can hear this same sound when the wind blows just right past an open window in your house or a hole in the rocks at the top of a mountain.

The best way to demonstrate this is with a bottle, a clear bottle.
Fill it half full and blow across the top to get a wind sound.
Now drink some water and blow again to get a lower sound. You can see the level of water change but you can't see what vibrates.

In Nepal, there are some religious groups that believe the breath from the nose is holier than the breath from the mouth, and they have these highly decorated sacred nose flutes with two tubes that come up to your nostrils. I don't have one of those, but there is a little toy nose flute you can play in a similar manner. These only cost a dollar.

Instruments that fall into this category are flutes and recorders (wooden or metal), piccolos, fifes, panpipes, ocarinas, tinwhistles, penny whistles, slide whistles, and even just regular whistles such as those used by referees. And whistles made out of elk horn or willow sticks fall here.

6-Hole and 7-Hole wind instruments (Diatonic and Chromatic)

Some flutes and all tinwhistles have 6 holes. Some flutes and all recorders have 7 holes (or even 9 but grouped into seven as five separate holes and two additional pairs of holes). The difference between the number of holes is the difference between the Diatonic and the Chromatic Scales.

Instruments that are diatonic are set up to be played in a specific "key." So if you want to be able to play in any of the 12 keys (Western music), you need 12 different instruments. Many people carry complete sets of tinwhistles or harmonicas for just this reason. The reason they added the other holes is so you don't have to carry 12 different instruments, you just need to figure out how to play in different keys on the same instrument (so the fingering gets a lot harder).


Horns include bugles, hunting horns, trumpets, trombones, French horns,, and tubas. To make a sound on these instruments, you make a raspberry (a farting sound) with your lips against the mouthpiece of the horn and it amplifies your sound. If you can get the sound to resonate within the horn, the sound wave bouncing back and forth so it vibrates with itself instead of dampens itself, you get a very loud and clear sound.

( The word "raspberry" as a synonym for "fart" comes from rhyming slang, where the phrase "raspberry tart" was used as a synonym for "fart." Eventually, the second word was dropped.)

To get other sounds, you get the resonance vibrating against a double or tripled wavelength to get octaves and fifths. Bugles and fanfare horns (the long trumpets used to herald the arrival of a king) only provide certain tones because of this restriction. a good example of this is blowing into a 10-foot length of plastic conduit. You can usually purse your lips tighter and get three or four distinct tones. This can take the place of an alphorn, those long horns played on the sides of mountains. They can be thirty feet or more long.

Trumpets and tubas add more notes by changing the length of the horn. The keys open up different sections to make the horn longer or shorter. Trombones have a slide which changes the length. Changing the length changes the tones at which the horn resonates well and gives pure, distinct tones. A Sousaphone is a tuba with horn pointing in a different direction. (A trumpet is chromatic although it only has three valves. You can press different combinations of the valves, 3 singles+3 pairs +all three to give you the 7 "holes" (lengths) necessary to play a chromatic scale).

The most basic horn is a conch shell with the tip cut off. If you have one of these, you can make a really loud foghorn sound. I also bought a cow horn that had its point shaped into a mouthpiece and suspect that was where the origin of the word horn came from. The ancient Israelis played a shofar, the spiral horn of an African antelope, which brought down the walls of Jericho.

A horn that doesn't have to be blown is a bulb. These are the classic bicycle horns with a rubber bulb you squeeze to force air through a small bugle. You can buy tuned sets of these--they are the instruments played by trained seals in 1950s tv shows.

Another horn-like instrument is the digeridoo, an Australian aboriginal instrument. You get a piece of wood that's been buried and hollowed out by termites (or a more modern carved one or even a travel one made out of plastic you can screw together). You hold the hollow, 4-foot or longer tube upright much like a panpipe but you blow your lips together loosely and rumble a sound into the opening which then gets resonant with the size of the space and forms a very low, eerie note. A new take on this is the digeribone, an adjustable digeridoo that slides like a trombone.


Reeds include clarinets and saxophones. Other reed instruments are the harmonica, accordian, and organ. These instruments have a reed (usually made of wood or metal) which beats against something to make the initial sound. Another reed instrument that isn't thought of as as a musical instrument is the kazoo. This has a reed made of paper. Some instruments have double reeds. These include the oboe and the snake charmer pipe.

The classic instruments of the orchestra, sax and clarinet, use the same sorts of horn amplifier as the trumpet, so they can look similar. Clarinets used to be made out of wood and saxes out of metal, but you can also get brass clarinets and straight saxophones. Apparently (or not so apparently), the real difference between them is that the bore, the hole through the middle, is the same width from end to end in a clarinet, but gets wider towards the horn end in a saxophone.

Harmonicas are not toys. They can be used to play real music. You can play them straight, with a tongue-block that makes them sound like an organ, and can play them cross-harp to get train rhythm sounds with a simple breathing pattern. You can also bend notes to get the train whistle and to make blues sounds.

Another reed instrument is a bagpipe. Bagpipes have a large sack that you blow up and then squeeze it to force air out of two or three drones (each of which emits a single note) while you play the main melody through a recorder-type instrument (with a reed) that puts your extra breath back into the bag to be used again for the drones. It's a pretty cool idea.

Percussion Instruments

Percussion instruments are things you hit. These include drums and things that hit themselves such as maracas which have beads which hit each other and the side of the maraca. Something you can both hit and shake is a tambourine


Drums come in all sorts of varieties. In Africa, drums were considered holy and were built in special drumyards. And they could offer sanctuary much like a church in Europe. If a an African king or emperor was mad at someone or if they had committed a crime, they could be saved if they could make it to the drumyard because the gods obviously favored them (which was the same reason they got sanctuary in Europe).

When Americans brought people over from Africa and turned them into slaves, they rebuilt their traditional instruments such as drums. However, certain tribes used "talking drums" which could send messages and after a slave revolt, drums were outlawed except on Sundays in Congo Square in New Orleans where people gathered to play the polyrhythms from Africa that eventually were incorporated into ragtime and dixieland music in modern America.

Drums include bongos, congas, djembe, hand drum, tympani, kettle drum, and dumbek. There are a lot of other named drums from different countries and cultures. There is also the classic trap drum set found in every rock and country band with bass, snares, tom-toms, cymbals, and sometimes a cowbell and/or other extra percussive things.

Drums can be made out of wood, metal or clay usually with a skin or plastic head across the top. Some have skin across both openings and can be hit on either end. Whirling drums are on a stick with a ball tied to a string and are whirled back and forth by rolling the stick in your hand. The ball on the rope hits either side of the drum.

A bohdran is an Irish drum which looks like a tambourine without the cymbals. You hold it by these two crossed dowels in the back and hit it with a beater which is like a cross between a drumstick and a kayak paddle-you can hit the drum with either end and get a real quick roll going.

Castanets used in traditional Spanish and Mexican music are hit against each other as are bones and spoons. Spoons are held tightly with their bowls about a 1/4 inch apart and hit against your knee and a free hand. You can put two spoons into a block of wood to make it easier to hold. Bones are played somewhat like chopsticks. One is held tightly in the palm of your hand and the other has a little wiggle room and you twist your wrist to play them. After demonstrating spoons, I always re-ask the question: Who has a musical instrument at home?

The shape and size of the drum affect its resonance and its initial sound, which is also greatly affected by the material of the head and what it is hit by, hand or mallet (wood/metal, stick/brush). Other things you hit or that hit each other include triangle, claves, gongs, cymbals, and bells. You can even buy sets of tuned bells or listen to a bell choir sometime.

Besides hitting, you can also rub. A washboard is rubbed and/or hit (tapped) with a stick or with fingers covered by thimbles. This is common in jug band and zydeco music. A guiro is a fish-shaped (originally) shaker (maraca) that also has ribbed sides you can rub with a stick or brush. They can come in metal or wood with a wide variety of shaking bead inside. Another rubbed instrument is a rasp. These are wood carvings of frogs and other creatures with a stick that you rub against their ribbed back or some other ribbed portion of the sculpture to get a clickety-clack sound.

One of the most unusual instruments I've seen is the singing bowl. These are used to meditate with. The bowl is made of metal or crystal and you rub a stick of some sort around the edge to vibrate out a pleasant sound. Some people do this with their fingers on the edge of champagne glasses (but they usually aren't meditating at the time).

Tuned Drums

Most drums only have a couple tones: a deep one and a shallow one. Clever players can get lots of sounds from different areas of a drum, including the sides. Hitting different places of an empty turtle shell gives different sounds. You can also hit precisely tuned pieces of metal or wood to get more specific tones. Glockenspiels and xylophones have separate pieces of metal you can hit to make a melody on. Marimbas are the same but made out of wood. Another metal drum is the steel drum used in Caribbean music where the bottom of an oil drum is beaten into separate areas which have distinct tones. Tongue Drums are wooden boxes with shapes (tongues) cut into one side which give different tones depending on which shape you hit.

The kalimba is also known as the African thumb piano. It has strips of metal of varying lengths (the separate tones) which are mounted against the top of a gourd or some other sound chamber. The strips are plucked by the thumb.

The jaw harp has a round metal body you hold up to your lips (pressed tightly against your teeth) with a strip of metal across the center that you luck with your finger and amplify with your mouth. Don't touch the vibrating metal with your tongue. The different sizes of jaw harps correspond to different keys. Whether this is a percussion or reed is one of the reasons folks look for other categorization schemes.


The maraca is the classic shaker, round container filled with some sort of beads on a stick that you can shake. There are also shakeres which are gourds that have the shaking beads (or seeds or shells) strung around the outside. These can be really loud. You can also get egg shakers and other fruit shaped ones that don't have a handle. This category also includes baby rattles. The container can even be woven out of reeds to make a woven basket rattle.

Sistrums have the shaking item, seed or metal, mounted on rods. The entire instrument is moved up and down to provide the shaking action. The afuche (cabasa) is a shaker made of metal with metal beads inside. Its container is ribbed and there are chains strung around the outside so it has beads on both the inside and outside.

One very odd instrument is the jawbone of an ass. In the Bible, there is a story about someone slaying somebody else with one of these. The reason there was one hanging around the house wasn't because a donkey had just died. They are a musical (and homicidal) instrument. When dried, the teeth shrink into their sockets and rattle loudly when the jaw is slapped against your thigh. You can also run a stick along the teeth.

String Instruments

String instruments can be split into bowed or plucked categories and they can also be split into harps and fretted instruments.

Bowed Instruments

Many string instruments such as the guitar are plucked (with fingers, fingerpicks, or flatpicks), but the oldest ones were played with bows. These include violins and basses. It seems counterintuitive that bowed instruments arose before plucked ones. But in the context of ancient hunter societies where all men carried bows and arrows, playing a bow and amplifying it with your mouth seems to be a natural thing. And so would rubbing two bows against each other. From there, it would lead to making instruments you can bow. Once you have instruments built for bowing, then folks probably started picking them (pizzicato).

You can actually play a bow on a guitar or ukulele, but you can't bow all the strings, only the ones at the outsides of the neck. The reason a violin bridge is set up the way it is, rounded across the top to separate all the strings, is to make it possible for the bow to hit each string of the instrument. One difference between a violin and a fiddle is that the fiddle bridge is shaved off to make it easier to bow two strings at once to perform a "double-stop." (The other difference is the position of the soundpost inside the instruments).

An odd bowed instrument is the musical saw. The "musical" ones are made of flimsier metal that is easier to bend but you can play any handsaw. A handsaw can be hit which means it would fall in the percussion family as a tuned percussion because you can bend it to get certain notes. But you can also play the saw with a bow and get an even eerier sound. I use those for Halloween shows.

Another odd bowed instrument is the hurdy gurdy. With these, the "bow" is actually a wooden disk which is spun against the strings by turning a handle.

Plucked Instruments

Plucked instruments can be split ino two different categories, harps (lyres) and fretted instruments (lutes), but most fretted instruments also have a harp-like ability to choose strings (you can pluck any one of the 6 strings of a guitar without fretting it to emulate a harp). And you can do this with a fiddle so these categories aren't completely exclusive but are useful for examination of instruments.

Harps have separate strings which are plucked individually or in groups in order to get notes. Each string only provides a single note which cannot be changed without retuning. A variety of the harp invented in the 19th century is the autoharp. These are harps that have the strings so close together it is impossible to pluck individual strings. What you do instead is brush across all the strings and then push down a bar to dampen the strings you do not want to hear. They are surprisingly easy to play and have a nice full sound but you are limited in how many bars you put on them to make different chords. The trick to playing melodies is to press a chord containing the correct note and then plucking/strumming just in the general area of the correct note.

Another harp is the piano. Many people put this into the percussion category because you hit the strings (the key hits a lever which pop a hammer against the strings) or into its own category completely: keyboards (which would include organs and accordians (wind), fancy hurdy-gurdys (bowed), and synthesizers (electronic)). I think of them as harps because you don't change the sound of any particular string while playing. You choose which string (or more often which pair of bass or triple of higher strings) to hit. In fact, the main component of a grand piano is called "the harp" and if you lok down on one, you can see it is shaped like a harp.

Precursors include the harpsichord and the hammered dulcimer, a folk instrument from the Appalachians which has no relationship at all to the mountain or lap dulcimer. A hammered dulcimer is basically a string xylophone. Pairs of strings are strung across bridges on a trapezoidal soundboard and then the strings are hit with hammers.

There is one harp-like instrument that is bowed: the bowed psaltery. These trapeziodal-shaped instruments have separate strings which are angled along the side so each can be bowed independently of the others. Some psalterys are plucked, though, and some have both bowed and plucked sections to allow you to play both ways.

Fretted Instruments

These include instruments which aren't fretted (such as the dobro or a fretless banjo). But the general priciple is that you can change the sound of a given string by shortening it ("stopping it") with a finger or some other object. That allows you to get multiple notes from a single string. These include the guitar and mandolin, both of which come from fairly far back in history and were based on the lute. Two instruments from Russia, the domra and the balalaika are also based on lutes. They were lost in history and revived in the 19th century by a Russian duke and are now considered classic instruments again.

There are many different strings from around the world. In America, we've got several that were invented here. The ukulele was fashioned in Hawaii (when it was still its own empire) based on a Portuguese guitar played by explorers in the 16th century. The dobro was also invented in Hawaii but in the 1940s when the Dopero brothers put a round banjo resonator inside a guitar body and raised the strings off the neck so they could make smooth sounds using a slide.

The string instrument with the most fascinating recent history is the banjo. This was first brought to the Americas by slaves from Africa. They fashioned instruments based on memories of Africa and played them on plantations. These were usually 3- or 4-string instruments played in a "frailing" manner which is still played in parts of northwest Africa. In the 1840s, Joel Walker Sweeney added a bass string to make it more guitar-like and started playing Minstrel Music. It caught on and people bought banjos and manufacturers added the resonator and other improvements. Then in 1917, the tango caught on and many violinists wanting work took the 5th string (the short African string) off the banjos and tuned them like violas creating the tenor banjo. Plectrum banjos have a longer neck and are tuned a bit differently but were created for the same need. After that, the classic banjo came to be known as the 5-string banjo.

The resonator of the banjo provides a neat sound. That's what they used to make dobros and it has also been attached to several other kinds of necks to create guitar-banjos, mandolin-banjos, and ukulele-banjos. In Turkey, they created a Cumbus with a loud banjo pot attached to a fretted neck and it is starting to take the place of the oud (another mandolin-like instrument).

Most stringed instruments have regular frets (which are sometimes at odd positions in Oriental instruments). The mountain or lap dulcimer has an irregular arrangement of frets. This allows you play "diatonic" melodies fairly easily because there are no wrong notes (if you start in the right place. The fret placement also makes it easy to play in "modes." A lap dulcimer is set on your lap and strummed/plucked with one hand while "fretting" the notes with a wooden dowel. They have a drone string much like a banjo or bagpipe. An unusual variation is the courting dulcimer which has a large body with a neck coming out each end. The young couple sits on the porch facing each other but side by side with the dulcimer placed across the joint lap. You can kiss while playing but if you get too involved, you stop playing and the parents come out to see what's going on.

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